WASHINGTON -- Heightened controversy hasn't negatively impacted sales of salty snacks made with the fat substitute olestra, several test market retailers told SN.
Though the Center for Science in the Public Interest here says olestra is causing serious gastrointestinal problems, retailers polled by SN said they haven't been notified of any significant adverse health affects. Rather, consumers who buy chips that contain the ingredient often come back for more, they said.
"Most people try them, like them and rebuy them," said Ken Quillin, manager at a Randalls Food Markets unit in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "No one has actually come and told me that they got sick from them." Frito-Lay's test line of "Max," which are made with olestra, aren't selling as briskly as their fat-laden counterparts, but they're doing well for a new product introduction, retailers said.
"We've had mostly positive comments about it," said Dixie Burmeister, consumer information coordinator at City Market, Grand Junction, Colo., a branch of the Dillon Cos., Hutchinson, Kan.
Frito-Lay is testing several different varieties of Max chips in 31 stores in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Grand Junction, Colo., and Eau Claire, Wis. The snacks are Lay's Potato Chips, Doritos, Ruffles and Tostitos. Marketed under the brand name Olean, olestra is manufactured by Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati. The test will end this fall.
"We haven't had any complaints at all. No one's returned a bag," said Ben Weiss, store manager at Kerm's Pick-N-Save, Eau Claire, Wis. "As a matter of fact, I've had comments of how good they are, and how much they taste like the regular chips." The Food and Drug Administration this year approved olestra as safe, but mandated that all products containing the ingredient carry a warning that some people may experience loose stools and abdominal cramping. Package labels also warn that olestra may inhibit absorption of some vitamins.
At a press conference this month, CSPI said nearly 200 consumers experienced severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps after eating chips. It called for a ban on olestra products, urging the FDA to withdraw its approval.
Frito-Lay maintains that while it has received several reports of digestive discomfort, they haven't been as severe as CSPI claims. Frito-Lay cited that olestra is the result of 20 years of research, along with a comprehensive FDA review. Retailers said that while the controversy may have dissuaded some consumers from buying Max chips, it hasn't hurt sales.
"People are anxious to get them. They're doing fairly well," said an assistant store manager at an Econo Foods store in Ceder Rapids, Iowa. "There are some people who won't buy them because of the scare, but, overall, they're selling quite well," said Quillin of Randalls, which is merchandising the line in a section of the snack aisle.
City Market has received about six letters objecting to sales of Max chips, though none were from consumers who experienced any health problems. When contacted by SN this month, the retailer received only one telephone call from a consumer who had a reaction, said Burmeister.
For the most part, demand has been strong, Burmeister said, adding that City Market even has had requests to ship them out of state.
Though Burmeister said CSPI has picketed a City Market store and has been running newspaper ads in opposition of the product, she said the retailer is pleased with the line.
Frito-Lay has hired Patricia Stiles, a registered dietitian at Community Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., as a consultant to educate consumers about olestra and to test consumer response.
"The overall response has been good," Stiles told SN. "What most people want to know is how they can fit [Max chips] into their diets."